The Battle Over Menhaden Harvesting in the Bay - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

The Battle Over Menhaden Harvesting in the Bay

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(Photo:  AFP/Getty Images via CBS) (Photo: AFP/Getty Images via CBS)

REEDVILlE, Va.– Set along the northern-most section of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay is a town called Reedville, a fishing community established in the 1870’s. Though quaint and scenic, the heart pumping life into Reedville is a fish processing plant owned by Omega Protein.

Omega Protein harvests and processes a small, oily fish called menhaden for various commercial uses that include fish oil and fish meal, which is used as food ingredients and animal feed. It’s a good business for Reedville’s economy, but there are others who say this business is bad for the bay.

One of those people is Allen Girard of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a watchdog group that fights for the health and restoration of the bay.

“Menhaden are an incredible species,” says Girard. “A link in the food chain to the whole food web to the Chesapeake Bay.”

A close eye is kept on that link by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries.

“The menhaden issue is a very complex issue the commission is currently facing,” says Toni Kerns, ASMFC’s director of Interstate Fisheries Management Program and Policy Development.

The ASMFC is a group that, under federal law, manages and oversees coastal fisheries including the menhaden species. Essentially, the ASMFC has regulatory authority.

“Regulatory authority means the commission’s individual fishery management boards put together a package of management measures for a fishery like menhaden and then the states go home and promulgate those measurements," says Kerns.

In April of 2018, the ASMFC implemented a 51,000 Metric Tons cap per state on menhaden harvesting within the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia chose not to lower its cap to 51,000 MT.

In September of 2019, Omega announced it would exceed the quota put forth by the ASMFC. Ben Landry, the Director of Public Affairs for Omega Protein, believes the decision was made with careful consideration.

“We believe this an unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in where a cap was lowered to a truly unrealistic number,” he says. “This year I would say is unique in terms of where menhaden were located, which is inside the bay.”

Girard is concerned by Omega’s decision to exceed the cap.

“It really shows a blatant disregard for the multi-state process that's been used to manage the fishery that's included thousands of scientists, watermen and concerned citizens,” explains Girard. “All these folks concerned with menhaden have been active in the process and Omega seems to be just overrunning the process with their own ideas."

Omega argues that it is following a sustainable practice regardless of ASMFC’s recommended limit for the bay. Landry says the company has not exceeded the 51,000 MT limit for a number of years.

"The cap that we have now on the coast wide level and the Chesapeake Bay cap are just averages. So, inherently, when you use an average to set a total reliable catch you've cut off any years above that,” Landry says.

Coast wide the ASMFC says menhaden is not over-fished and its numbers are healthy just as Omega Protein argues. However, the overall population is not necessarily a reflection of the bay’s population or how the menhaden impacts the bay’s overall health.

Kerns says the ASMFC is currently in the process of finishing up an assessment that might shed light on the menhaden’s impact on the bay. From there, the hope is to a have a more scientifically supported picture to base Menhaden harvest limits on.

As for repercussions for Omega’s decision to exceed the recommended limit, the ASMFC says its board will be recommending the ISFMP find the state of Virginia out of compliance for not implementing and enforcing the 51,000 MT cap.

On Thursday, Oct. 31, the ISFMP will decide if it wants to make the same recommendation to the full commission. It would be the Secretary of Commerce’s responsibility to take action on that recommendation.

WBOC reached out numerous times to the Virginia Governor’s Office but so far has not been given a statement regarding where it stands on Omega’s decision.

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